Ten days before British Grand Prix weekend, I drove up to Silverstone — yes, it was raining — and there joined a marquee-full of damp enthusiasts for 'An Evening with Ken Tyrrell'. Taking a seat at the back, I found myself in good company, with such as Frank Williams and Jody Scheckter. "Ken was my first hero when I got into Formula One," Frank said. "Wouldn't miss it."
As I arrived, Jackie Stewart was at the microphone, working through one of those preambles he does so well. "I'd done F3 and F2 with Ken, but he didn't have a Grand Prix team, and I drove for BRM for three years. Then, for 1968, I had an offer from Ferrari. They were going to pay me £20,000, give me a road car — which, being Scottish, I didn't want to be loaned — and I got them to agree that the bottom half of the car would be blue! Can you imagine that? I was kind of keen to go, and yet the attraction was Ken Tyrrell..."
It was in 1967 that Tyrrell decided to make the step up to Formula One, and so deep was Stewart's respect for him, he opted to turn down Ferrari, and go with the fledgling outfit. There were in place, mind you, the basics for a very competitive package. One, Jackie had raced Ken's Matras in F2, and developed a very high regard for the French company; two, Tyrrell was to use the Ford Cosworth DFV (previously available only to Team Lotus); three, Ferrari's financial offer was matched.
"I was incredibly lucky with the timing," Ken said. "In '67, the DFV raced for the first time, at Zandvoort. I flew over to watch, out and back on race day, and it was clear that this engine was.., the only engine in the race. Everything else was suddenly old-fashioned rubbish. If you wanted to go racing in the future, this was the engine you had to have.
"In those days, you went up to Northampton, you gave them £7500 — and you came away with an engine which could win you Grands Prix. All you had to do was put it into a reasonably competitive car, with a good driver, and you could win the next race — and it continued like that for more than ten years!
"The timing for me was perfect. Matra were keen to make an F1 car, Ford had the engine, and Jackie wanted to drive for us. God knows why, when he could have driven for Ferrari, but he did. I asked how much he wanted, and he said, 'Twenty thousand pounds'. I didn't have twenty thousand pence..."
Thus, Tyrrell went to see Ford's Walter Hayes, father of the DFV project. Ken thought he could get the money eventually, he said, but needed it now, so as to get Stewart on board; it would help considerably in his dealings with Matra. Hayes didn't hesitate. "He didn't have to get on the 'phone to Henry II, or anything like that — he just said yes. I was amazed!"
In fact, Tyrrell ultimately landed 180,000 in sponsorship from Dunlop, and used some of it to pay Stewart. "That," he said, with a sly smile, "left £60,000 to run the team. Still, because of Dunlop's money, I never needed the £20,000 from Walter — and I only found out later that he gave it to Jackie!"
More than 30 years on, they remain the closest of friends, and though Ken was ever a man to say he was more interested in tomorrow than yesterday, you suspect he never enjoyed racing quite as much after 1973, when Jackie retired with a third World Championship, and his team mate Francois Cevert, a man loved by all who knew him, was killed in the final race, at Watkins Glen. "What happened to Francois was dreadful, dreadful, and I did think about getting out of motor racing. Our car that year was 005, and it was a very quick car although, having a short wheelbase, not an easy one to drive. Jackie and Francois finished 1-2 on several occasions in '73, including at the Niirburgring. In their three years as team mates, Jackie helped Francois tremendously — he couldn't have done more, told him everything. Well, after that race at the Niirburgring, where they went from start to finish, first and second, Jackie said to me, 'Francois could have passed me any time he liked..."'
Earlier, Stewart had poked fun at Tyrrell, recalling that he was not a great one for celebrating successes. Another chequered flag, OK, everybody, let's pack up and get set for the next one. That being so, I asked, was there any special day in Ken's memory, any victory he would trade for all the others?
I suspected he would choose the Niirburgring in '68, the famous day when Stewart's Matra won in the rain by over four minutes. Sure enough, he didn't need to think too long. "Jackie was right when he said I wasn't a celebrator. If we did badly, I really felt bad; if we did well, I felt we should have done well. I know it doesn't sound right, but that's the way I am.
"That day at the Nurburgring was absolutely amazing. It's true we had the best wet tyre — from Dunlop — but Jackie didn't start at the front. In practice at the Ring we would spend the first 20 minutes or so going round the short loop rather than setting off on a 14-mile journey to find out there was something wrong. We spent the only bit of dry practice doing just that, and it was really wet when Jackie qualified. He was sixth, and therefore had cars to pass.
"At the end of the first lap, this DFV came within earshot, and we didn't know who it was. Jackie came by in a cloud of spray... and then there was silence!" Stewart's lead at that point was over eight seconds; at the end of the second, it was out to 34. No surprise that Tyrrell remembers the day well.
He remembers well the following year's Italian Grand Prix, too, for Stewart's victory — by half a car length from Jochen Rindt — won both driver and team their first World Championships. "The reason Jackie won was that, from the beginning of practice, he said we had to get the right gear for coming out of Parabolica, the last corner. On the last lap you didn't want to come out in the lead, because others in the bunch would slipstream past before the line. And he was right, of course."
Mention of Parabolica brought Ken on to his great hobby-horse of the moment. What, someone asked, was the worst aspect of Formula One today, and he answered at once: "No bloody overtaking!" This, you will not be surprised to learn, provoked immediate applause from the audience.
"The races aren't too bad, even so," he went on, "but, Jesus, I'd like to see some overtaking. Harvey Posdethwaite always said tracks were mainly to blame, and there was some truth in that, but Parabolica is exactly the same now as it was 30 years ago. Back then four cars went over the line together. That would never happen today.
When it comes to a pure love of racing, I would put Ken Tyrrell up there with Mario Andretti. Undoubtedly, there are aspects of his former life that he misses a great deal. "It's a very exciting business to be involved in, isn't it? I see a lot of Ron [Dennis] and Frank at races, and I find out from them what's going on, and why certain decisions are being made. I no longer want to be involved — I just want to know, from an enthusiast's point of view."
If you could put all the great postwar drivers into equal cars, somone asked, which would be the most consistent winner?
"You'd have to say Alain Frost," replied Ken. "But the question I'm asked more often is: who are the greatest drivers I've had the pleasure of seeing? My list, not in any order, is Fangio, Moss, Clark, Stewart and then a long gap to Prost, Senna and... maybe Schumacher, although I'm still not sure." And his own great talents? "I don't think I had any — I think I just liked motor racing. For 30 years I did what I loved doing — what a lucky man I was!"